The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by William Alexander. Algonquin Books, 2006, $22.95, 288 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
William Alexander had a simple dream of having a vegetable garden and small orchard in his back yard. It was a dream that would lead to life-and-death battles with groundhogs, webworms, and weeds; midnight expeditions in the dead of winter to dig up fresh thyme; skirmishes with neighbors who feed the vermin (i.e., deer); the near electrocution of the tree man; and the pity of his wife and children. When Alexander decided to run a cost-benefit analysis, adding up everything from the Havahart animal trap ($60) to the Velcro tomato wraps ($5) to the steel edging ($1,200), then amortizing it over the life of his garden, it came as quite a shock to learn that it cost him a staggering $64 to grow each tomato.
A gardener with an existential bent, Alexander gives excellent advice about everything from peaches to leeks, while tackling such questions as What do our gardens tell us about ourselves? Do we get the gardens we deserve? And Why does the groundhog have to take one bite from half a dozen tomatoes when any gardener would gladly grant him six bites of just one?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly : When the author of this hilarious horticultural memoir plants a large vegetable garden and a small orchard on his Hudson Valley farmstead, he finds himself at odds with almost all creation. At the top of the food chain are the landscaping contractors, always behind schedule, frequently derelict, occasionally menacing. Then there are the herds of deer that batter the electrified fence to get at Alexander's crop, and the groundhog who simply squeezes between the wires, apparently savoring the 10,000-volt shocks. Most insidious are the armies of beetles, worms, maggots, and grubs that provoke Alexander, initially an organic-produce zealot, into drenching his entire property with pesticides. He braves these trials, along with hours of backbreaking labor and the eye-rolling of his wife and children, for the succulence of homegrown food. He also manages to maintain a sense of humor, riffing on everything from the ugliness of garden ornaments to the politics of giving away vegetables to friends. Alexander's slightly poisoned paradise manages to impart an existential lesson on the interconnectedness of nature and the fine line between nurturing and killing.
Booklist : It began innocently enough. Now that Alexander and his formerly city-dwelling family had a little bit of suburban property, why not plant some vegetables and put in a few fruit trees? After all, any costs involved would be more than offset by the joys of slicing fresh peaches on his morning cereal or drizzling virgin olive oil over juicy beefsteak tomatoes from his own plants, right? Not exactly. Recounting all of the things that could, and did, go wrong, from abandoned tractors to marauding groundhogs, and menacing handymen to ravaging beetles, Alexander wryly reveals how his well-intentioned experiment in back-yard agriculture ended up being a lot more frustrating, not to mention expensive, than he envisioned. In this appealingly witty memoir of one man's battle with nature, Alexander weaves a cautionary tale for those who have ever tasted a grocery-store tomato and vowed to grow a better one in their own back yard.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
William Alexander has been gardening and small-scale farming for over 25 years. He lives with his wife and their two children in New York's Hudson Valley.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
"You've had a busy year with this book." "It was my first book. I was 53 when it came out, and I thought maybe my family would buy a few copies and that would be it, but it's taken off. We're very pleased. I've just been invited to the National Book Fair on the Capital Mall, so I'm having breakfast with Laura Bush."
"Congratulations, I think."
"Yeah, I'm not so sure. I'm trying to keep art separate from politics."
"Did you grow up around gardens and gardening?"
"We had a very small house. I mean, the plot was maybe a tenth of an acre, but my dad always had a garden. Tomatoes, of course, were his main thing. He was a guidance counselor for the school system. I remember him not being satisfied with the tomato seedlings he could buy at the garden center, so he and a teacher would put in an order for seeds and share it. When you get a packet of seeds, you only need about nine of them.
"Unfortunately, as a kid, I couldn't have been less interested in the garden. I paid no attention whatsoever. I can't tell you how many times I've rued that fact. I could have used a lot of help when I started to garden on my own."
"Where was that first garden?"
"On St. Thomas. It was my first time being far from home. I think the garden was a way of putting down my roots -- no pun intended. It set the scene for why I still garden today. Even on St. Thomas you couldn't get decent fresh food. Half the time, the vegetables you found you didn't want to eat. It was shocking to me."
"Did you call your dad for advice?"
"You know, I don't remember doing that. In 1978, you didn't call anyone from the Virgin Islands. I may have written some letters."
"When you've been asked to give advice to gardeners, you always say, 'start small.' It sounds to me like you learned that lesson the hard way. Why did you begin with such a large garden?"
"Now, I do tell people to keep in mind that the garden you build today is the garden that you have to tend tomorrow, but we didn't think about that at first.
"I think where we really got into trouble is once we realized this plot of land was ours, we spent a full two years just staring at it, trying to figure out what to do. During those two years we gave each other garden books. These beautiful, large, glossy garden books with titles like, Monet's Garden , Giverny , and Great Victorian Gardens . What we failed to recognize, of course, was the fact that one of the things that made great Victorian gardens great is they came with great Victorian gardeners.